How bad was the Western Conference back in the great 1980’s of the NBA? Well, the Los Angeles Lakers cruised to the West crown most of the eight times in 10 years, and the only two times they lost - 1981 and 1986 - were to Houston, both led by big frontlines who pounded LA on the boards.
In 1981, the Rockets team led by Moses Malone that upset the defending champion Lakers finished the season with a record of just 40-42! Heck, the average win percentage of the Laker playoff foes in the West in the 1980’s was barely over .500. In 1987, they played two sub-.500 teams and a 42-40 team to get to the NBA Finals. In the Western Conference Finals, they swept a sub-.500 Seattle team.
In the East in 1987, a severely crippled Celtics team fought through a young Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the first round, survived a seven-game thriller with the Bucks, and then persevered against the Bad Boy Pistons in a seven-game slugfest just to reach the Finals.
Despite having to run the gauntlet of a tough East each spring and play into June almost every year, shortening their off-season and recovery time, the Celtics of 1984-87 were the last team to make it to four consecutive NBA Finals for almost 30 years until this past decade, when the Heat did it in a weak East from 2011-14, and then the Cavaliers of 2015-18. Think about that.
A big part of the reason the Lakers are erroneously called the “Team of the 1980’s” is the fact the West was so much weaker than the East. The playoffs are a battle of attrition and until 1989, the Lakers did not face much competition or injury in the Western playoffs.
The Lakers never had a consistently good in-conference rival in the decade, unlike Boston, who faced the 76ers, Bucks, Pistons, and Hawks. Four of the top five aggregate records of the 1980’s were teams in the East. During their 2010’s dominance, one might say that Miami (and later Cleveland) resembled the Lakers of the 1980’s by ruling over a bad group of competitors, with LeBron James playing the Earvin Johnson role.
In fact, from 1981-88, LA never faced a team who won more than 53 games, and usually met teams with considerably fewer victories.
Conversely, Boston faced five teams (four 76ers clubs, one Bucks) just from 1980-86 who won 57-62 games. On top of that, serious injuries arguably cost Boston titles in 1982 and 1987, and possibly even in 1985.
By the time the Eastern representative fought its way to the championship series in the 1980’s, they were often worn out and beaten up, especially since not only was the competition better, the style of play was much more physical than the up-and-down, run-and-gun Western Conference was then.
I thought it might be fun to play a “What If” game and ask A) how things might have been different had Boston and LA switched places in the playoffs each year during the Bird era; and B) what would have happened had Boston and LA met every year in the Finals from 1980 to 1992?
Even though it seems like the Celtics and Lakers met constantly in the Finals during the Bird/Johnson era, they actually only met three times, with the Celtics severely hampered by injury in their ‘85 and ‘87 series losses.
Fans who had to wait until the end of their fifth seasons Bird and Johnson been in the NBA for them to meet again for the title they fought for in 1979 were finally satiated, and rewarded with a superb seven-game series that easily ranks as one of the best ever.
In the only championship series they met when the teams were similarly healthy, Boston won in a seven-game classic. Somehow, those Celtics had been cast as underdogs for that epic Finals: this despite having a much better record despite a tougher schedule (62 wins to 54), the homecourt advantage, and the Lakers having traded All-Star guard Norm Nixon for his oft-struggling rookie replacement, Byron Scott.
Plus, LA struggled mightily to barely beat the 41-41 Suns 4-2 in the WCF, and that came only after winning Game 6 99-97 by dodging a last-second Phoenix shot. On the other hand, Boston dispatched a strong 50-32 Milwaukee club handily in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, with their four wins coming by an average of 13.5 ppg. Hmm. Underdogs?
Interestingly, despite playing a tougher schedule annually by virtue of two-thirds of its slate being confined to the tougher East, Boston still posted the best record in the NBA in six of the first seven seasons of the 1980’s.
The lone time they failed to do so was 1982-83, when they still were 56-26, nine games behind eventual champion Philadelphia.
Only when age and injury started to catch up to Boston in 1987 did the Lakers finally start posting better records, even though their schedule was also easier. In their 25 Western Conference playoff series of the 1980’s, LA faced teams who totaled 1,116 wins, an average of 44.6 victories a season per opponent. The Lakers won 23 of those 25 Western series in the decade, losing only to Houston in 1981 and 1986. In fact, the two best playoff teams LA faced in the 1980’s out west came in the same season of 1980 when they defeated Phoenix (55-27) and Seattle (56-26), each in five tough games.
On the other hand, Boston’s 23 playoff opponents of the 1980’s in the East won an incredibly similar 1,115 games (but in two less series), an average of 48.5 wins a season. Additionally, the only year Boston was eliminated before the conference finals between 1980-88 came in 1983, when they would have played the 65-17 76ers had they gotten by the Bucks.
Including that series, the opponent’s average win total would be 49.2. Boston won 19 of those 23 Eastern series, losing three times in the conference final (twice to the 76ers and once to Detroit) and one time to the Bucks in the 1983 semis. That opponent record would be right at 50 wins per game if one adds that the 30-52 Chicago club Boston beat in 1986 was really about a 40-45 win team with a healthy Jordan. MJ missed 64 of 82 games that season (the Bulls were 9-9 with him, including 5-1 in games he played 30 or more minutes), making the Bulls much more formidable.
LA played eight playoff teams in the 1980’s who won less than 40 games, winning seven times. Boston played four playoff teams with less than 40 wins in that span, including those misleading 1986 Bulls. Boston’s average wins per season from 1980-88 - excluding 1988-89 when Bird played a mere six games due to injury and missed the playoffs - equal a superb 61.1 per year, or a total of 550-188.
LA averaged 59.3 wins per season from 1980-88, or 534-204. And that is with the advantage playing a schedule roughly 20 percent easier since the west was considerably softer from 1981-88.
Had the teams switched conferences, from 1980-88 Boston could well have projected to probably win 63-64 games a season and as many as six championships due to an easier, less taxing road to the Finals. Meanwhile, LA might have dropped to 56-57 victories a year in the East and won only two titles at most.
And thus Boston would be unequivocally considered the team of the 1980’s, not LA. Only in 1983 (Philly) and 1989 (Detroit) would someone else have won the crown other than the NBA’s two dominant franchises. At the very worst, the Celtics and Lakers should be seen as “Co-teams of the Decade,” followed by Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit.
West semis: LA (60-22) 4, Phoenix (55-27) 1
West finals: LA 4, Seattle (56-26) 1
East semis: Boston (61-21) 4, Houston (41-41) 0
East finals: Philadelphia (59-23) 4, Boston 1
NBA Finals: LA 4, Philadelphia 2
LA 4, Houston 1
LA 4, Philadelphia 3
Boston 4, Phoenix 2
Boston 4, Seattle 3
Fantasy NBA Finals: LA 4, Boston 2
The great 1979-80 campaign, a sea-changer for the slumping league due mainly to the ascension of super rookies Bird and Johnson, was the one season in the decade that the West was on par with or perhaps better than the East.
Out west the Lakers, defending champion Seattle, Phoenix and an up and coming Milwaukee squad all fielded excellent teams.
In the East, Boston (61-21) and Philly (59-23) posted the first and third-best records in the NBA, and Atlanta was also good at 50-32.
The Celtics, who improved by a then-record 32 wins due mostly to their rookie superstar, won the first four playoff games of the Larry Bird era by sweeping Houston.
But then they ran into a veteran 76ers team that beat them in five tough games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Certainly that series took something out of the 76ers, who battled LA to a 2-2 tie in the Finals before losing the last two contests and the title.
Had Boston and LA met, it is likely the bigger Lakers would have won. The 1979-80 campaign was the last of six MVP seasons in the career of Jabbar, while Cowens was in his final Celtic campaign and was slightly hampered by foot issues that caused his retirement the next pre-season.
Jabbar averaged over 33 ppg in the Finals before an ankle injury sidelined him for Game 6, robbing him of the series MVP for sure.
LA beat Boston in both of their regular season meetings in the rookie year of Bird and Johnson, including a 100-98 comeback win at the Garden where they ran off 21 points in a row in the third quarter to erase a big deficit. Cowens missed a 21-footer at the buzzer that would have tied it.
A superior Laker backcourt of Norm Nixon and Earvin Johnson (over Archibald and Chris Ford), as well as Jabbar at the end of his prime, would likely have led LA over the Celtics in six.
West 1st round: Houston (40-42) 2, LA (54-28) 1
West semis: Houston 4, San Antonio (52-30) 3
West finals: Houston 4, Kansas City (40-42) 1
East semis: Boston (62-20) 4, Chicago (45-37) 0
East finals: Boston 4, Philadelphia (62-20) 3
NBA Finals: Boston 4, Houston 2
Boston 2, Houston 0
Boston 4, San Antonio 1
Boston 4, Kansas Cty 1
LA 4, Chicago 2
Philadelphia 4, LA 2
Boston 4, LA 3
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 2
The rough and slowdown Rockets upset the Lakers 2-1 in the mini-series first round, ending any chance of a Bird/Johnson/Boston/LA Finals for the first time since 1969.
Johnson had returned from a knee injury late in the season and upset the Laker chemistry, and Moses Malone dominated the boards against a much more passive Jabbar.
Boston, meanwhile, swept a huge Bulls team in their east semis, prompting then Chicago coach Jerry Sloan to call Bird “the best all-around player he had ever seen” in just his second season.
Larry then led the Celtics to a 4-3 win over the 76ers in arguably the greatest playoff series ever. Boston rallied from a 1-3 deficit to win Games 5 and 6 by two points each, and Bird’s late bank shot gave the Celtics an epic 91-90 victory in Game 7.
Worn out emotionally and physically from that draining series, Boston was not up for the underdog Rockets, whose deliberate style kept the big Rockets at the start of The Finals.
Playing the first four games of the series in just six days, the Celtics stumbled to a 2-2 tie. They then blew the Rockets out in the last two games to take their 14th banner and first since 1976.
Had Boston and LA met in the 1981 Finals, new acquisitions Robert Parish and Kevin McHale would have posed huge problems inside for the Lakers. The Celtics swept LA 2-0 in the season series, including a 14-point blowout at the Forum where Bird hit on 16 of 19 shots en route to 36 transcendent points.
Even Laker GM Jerry West, a Bird doubter before his rookie season, shook his head in admiration after that showing. “Bird was three steps ahead of everyone out there,” said West, a great player and basketball brain himself. Behind Bird’s transcendent all-around game, the Celtics would win in six by pounding the weaker Lakers on the boards.
West semis: LA (57-25) 4, Phoenix (46-36) 0
West finals: LA 4, San Antonio (48-34) 0
East semis: Boston (63-19) 4, Washington (43-39) 1
East finals: Philadelphia (58-24) 4, Boston 3
NBA Finals: LA 4, Philadelphia 2
Boston 4, Phoenix 1
Boston 4, San Antonio 1
LA 4, Washington 2
LA 4, Philadelphia 3
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 3
This was the year Boston and Los Angeles were poised to meet in the NBA championship. Defending champion Celtics were the best team all year, finishing five games ahead of Philly and six ahead of LA for the best record.
When the Celtics crushed Philly 121-81 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, fans and observers started preparing for the dream LA/Boston matchup.
But the proud 76ers upset the Celts in Game 2, and the series changed when Archibald was tripped while dribbling up court and landed awkwardly on the ball and floor. He re-separated his left shoulder which had been injured in the prior bruising series vs. the rugged Bullets.
Nate may have been the team’s least replaceable player since they had no one else to simulate his skills at the point of pushing the ball, penetrating, passing and hitting the open jumper.
Gerald Henderson and rookie Danny Ainge tried to replace Archibald, but Henderson was not a good shooter (although a better defender) while Ainge was not ready - nor a point guard - after joining the team in mid-season after abruptly ending his major league baseball career.
Boston grimly rallied from 1-3 down vs. the 76ers as they had in 1981, but this time a determined Philly squad took Game 7 in the Garden.
But the Sixers didn’t have enough left to beat LA, which had cruised to the Finals with an 8-0 start. Having picked up former scoring champion Bob McAdoo off waivers, the Lakers now had a super seventh man to go along with sixth man/defensive ace Michael Cooper.
One could easily argue that McAdoo or Nixon was the real MVP of the 1982 Finals, but the fan-friendly Johnson was given the award despite a pedestrian 13 ppg.
Had Archibald not gotten hurt, Boston would have advanced and I believe beaten LA. The Celtics had the stronger inside game and overall frontcourt with their quintet of Bird, Parish, Maxwell, McHale and Robey vs. Rambis, Jabbar, Wilkes, and McAdoo.
People tend to forget that back then, Boston was a running team as much or more than a half court offense squad, but there set offense was still better than LA’s, Kareem’s deadly sky hook notwithstanding.
With Archibald running the break, a younger and healthy Bird and company all ran the floor much better than given credit for.
West semis: LA (58-24) 4, Portland (46-36) 1
West finals: LA 4, San Antonio (53-29) 2
East semis: Milwaukee (51-31) 4, Boston (56-26) 0
East finals: Philadelphia (65-17) 4, Milwaukee 1
NBA Finals: Philadelphia 4, LA 0
Boston 4, Portland 2
Boston 4, San Antonio 3
LA 4, Milwaukee 3
Philadelphia 4, LA 1
Philadelphia 4, Boston 2
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 2
In 1983, the Lakers faced probably their toughest Western Conference final opponent from 1981-89 in the 53-29 Spurs of Gervin, Gilmore, underrated Mike Mitchell, and Johnny Moore. LA barely survived by a basket to clinch in Game 6 on the road, the exact same outcome they would have a year later at Phoenix.
But rookie James Worthy had gone down with a broken leg late in the season, and standout guard Norm Nixon would suffer a separated shoulder in Game 3 of the Finals with LA already down 2-0 to a 76ers juggernaut on a mission. Like 1989, it didn’t cause the Lakers to lose, but it probably kept them from winning at least one game.
But Moses Malone was at his peak and the 76ers were not to be denied after losing three times in the Finals in the previous six years, twice to LA and once to Portland, each time in six games.
Back east, the Celtics (other than Bird) seemed to have tuned out demanding coach Bill Fitch, nicknamed Captain Video for his penchant for long video scouting sessions. Boston dropped to 56-26, a record most teams would covet but the first time in the decade they won less than 61.
With Bird sidelined by the flu for Game 2 of their semifinal series vs. Milwaukee, the Celtics crumbled down the stretch. They blew an 82-74 lead and without their go-to guy, scored just nine points in the fourth period en route to a 95-91 loss. The Bucks went on to hand the Celtics the first 4-0 sweep in franchise history and Fitch was handed his walking papers in favor of more laid back assistant K.C. Jones.
Still, Boston possessed a very talented and deep team. While Philadelphia was clearly the best team that season, Boston probably still would have been the best in the west.
Had they faced LA without Worthy, Boston would not have had the homecourt advantage against the Lakers for the only time from 1980-86, but the matchups would still have favored the Celtics.
Parish vs. Jabbar gave LA a slight edge, McHale and Maxwell were better than Rambis and McAdoo, Bird was better than Jamaal Wilkes, and Nate Archibald and Nixon were also pretty much even, but Nixon may have maintained a small advantage due to being seven years younger.
The one clear advantage LA had was at the other guard with Johnson over Danny Ainge, M.L. Carr, and Quinn Buckner. However, all three Celt guards were fine defenders and Boston had tremendous depth that year after adding All-Star Scott Wedman plus Rick Robey and Gerald Henderson. In fact, the Celtics may have had too many quality players (11) to keep happy with enough minutes.
That and a deteriorating morale down the stretch hurt the Celtics. But against LA without Worthy, they would have pounded the mediocre-rebounding Lakers inside.
Boston whipped LA 110-95 in the Garden and also won at the Forum 113-104 to sweep the season series and this came when the Lakers were at full strength. The Celtics out-rebounded LA 53-43 and 49-42 in the two convincing wins, with Bird recording a 32-17-9 game at LA.
Interestingly, after both meetings the two rivals possessed the same record; 34-10 after the first contest and 40-14 the second time.
Under the 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format of that time, Boston would likely have split the first two at the Forum, swept the next two at home, and finished off the Lakers in six back in Boston, where they went 33-8 that regular season.
West 1st round: LA (54-28) 3, Kansas City (38-44) 0
West semis: LA 4, Dallas (43-39) 1
West finals: LA 4, Phoenix (41-41) 2
East 1st round: Boston (62-20) 3, Washington (35-47) 1
East semis: Boston 4, New York (47-35) 3
East finals: Boston 4, Milwaukee (50-32) 1
NBA Finals: Boston 4, LA 3
Boston 3, Kansas City 0
Boston 4, Dallas 1
Boston 4, Phoenix 1
LA 3, Washington 1
LA 4, New York 2
LA 4, Milwaukee 3
NBA Finals: Boston 4, LA 3
People tend to say in revisionist fashion that the Celtics somehow “stole” the 1984 Finals, but the truth is that they dominated the final 3.5 games of that series.
I am sure some of the notion Boston got “lucky” comes from the fact that Gerald Henderson made the great steal and layup late in Game 2 to force overtime as Boston avoided an 0-2 deficit and the fact they fought back late to win Game 4 in OT with their backs to the wall.
But Boston led Game 2 by 10 after one period and held a close margin most of that game. Game 4was also close throughout, and under pressure the Celtics simply proved to be a more battle-tested, tougher team who was superior in the half court.
Boston held the lead for the vast majority of the last three games.
In fact, over the last 15 quarters of the 1984 Finals, Boston won 10 (including a 16-12 OT in Game 4), tied two periods, and lost just three quarters. But only one of those was convincingly (36-21 in the fourth period of Game 6 when LA rallied to win). The other two periods they lost were by two and four points.
In that span, Boston outscored LA 411-381. And that is with a huge late rally by LA in game 6, a game they “stole.”
Boston blew LA out in Game 5 to take control of the series as Bird had his best Finals game ever (34 points on 15-of-20 shooting and 17 rebounds) in the sauna game. It was series MVP Bird who led the Celtics to the two closest and toughest games in overtime in Games 2 and 4, and he hit the eventual game-winner on a clutch fadeaway over Johnson late in OT after the Lakers guard had just bricked two free throws.
Plus Boston built a 15-point second half lead and held on to win Game 7 fairly convincingly over a demoralized Lakers team. Remember too that they held a double-digit lead late in the third period in Game 6 at LA before blowing that contest by inexplicably freezing out Bird.
Also forgotten is that James Worthy got back at Boston by shoving Maxwell hard into the stanchion - from behind and blindly - on a fast break just as he went up for a layup in Game 6. But that cheap shot against his former idol growing up in North Carolina is rarely if ever mentioned, whereas the McHale clothesline is constantly replayed as lazy revisionist history also meant to portray Boston as the bullies.
In addition, in the second round of the East playoffs, the undermanned Knicks instigated that no layup style when Ernie Grunfeld took down McHale, and then in Game 6 when Rory Sparrow and Ray Williams gang-tackled Bird on a breakaway layup. Sparrow was actually ejected for also swinging a forearm into the head of Bird on the play. Larry simply pulled himself off the court amid the jeering New York crowd and made both free throws - a far cry from the whining by the sneakily physical Lakers camp led by Pat Riley.
Jabbar also elbowed Bird in the face in Game 4 of the ‘84 Finals, and McAdoo kneed Larry purposely in the groin on a drive into the lane. Worthy and Jabbar also threw wild elbows moments before the McHale hit on Rambis in Game 4. All seem to have been forgotten in an effort to fit a pre-conceived, grudgingly backhanded narrative.
Boston also went to a big lineup (Parish/McHale/Maxwell/Bird/DJ) to combat the Lakers, and dominated the boards, especially the offensive glass, which negated some of the Lakers running game. In Game 7, the Celts crushed LA on the boards, 52-33. And in a half court game, Boston was simply better.
Bird averaged series-best totals of 27.4 points and 14 rebounds a game, leading the Celtics to a 48.1-43.0 rebound per contest edge. In the Game 4 OT epic, he posted mammoth totals of 29 points and 21 rebounds in a high pressure contest on the road with his team down 2-1. Boston snared 131 offensive boards in the series, just under 19 per game. In Game 7, the hungrier Celtics grabbed 20 offensive caroms compared to just nine by LA. No Laker averaged as high as eight rebounds a game in the series.
West 1st round: LA (62-20) 3, Phoenix (36-46) 0
West semis: LA 4, Portland (42-40) 1
West finals: LA 4, Denver (52-30) 1
East 1st round: Boston (63-19) 3, Cleveland (36-46) 1
East semis: Boston 4, Detroit (46-36) 2
East finals: Boston 4, Philadelphia (58-24) 1
NBA Finals: LA 4, Boston 2
Boston 3, Phoenix 0
Boston 4, Portland 1
Boston 4, Denver 2
LA 3, Cleveland 0
LA 4, Detroit 2
LA 4, Philadelphia 2
Fantasy Finals: LA 4, Boston 2 (although a healthy Maxwell and Bird may have changed the outcome)
In fairness, the Lakers of 1985 were on a mission to reclaim the title that eluded them the previous year. After Boston embarrassed them 148-114 in Game 1 in the Memorial Day Massacre, Jabbar and LA controlled much of the final five games.
Scott Wedman shot a perfect 11-11, including four treys, in that opening contest blowout, which was Boston’s fourth win in five Finals games vs. LA dating back to 1984.
But Jabbar rebounded from an unusually bad 12-point, three-rebound showing to dominate the rest of the series, scoring 28.3 ppg and grabbing 10.2 boards over the final five contests. Boston looked tired and a bit complacent after winning the title the year before and Game 1 so easily.
In the clinching sixth game defeat at home, the Celtics starting guards repeatedly missed open shots, shooting a putrid 6-for-31 combined. Parish missed several layups (shot 5-for-14) as he was abused by series MVP Jabbar, who at 38 scored 29 on 13-21 shooting.
Hampered by an injury to his shooting elbow, Bird posted 28 and 10, but only McHale was at the top of his game. Announcing himself as a true superstar, Kevin was unstoppable as he went for 32 points and 16 rebounds to keep Boston in striking distance late.
But then he was whistled for a terrible sixth foul, with him went the Celtics chances for a late rally.
McHale and Ainge had moved into the starting lineup due to the trade of Henderson and a knee injury to Maxwell, which he did not rehab well and left him ineffective, a key blow to their repeat chances.
Danny may not have been quite ready for a starting role in such a huge series, and he shot just 3-of-16 in the final game. DJ was just as bad at 3-of-15 and it seemed like Boston expected the fans and the parquet floor alone to lift them to another victory. The Lakers simply came on their court and took it to them, and the more the Boston guards misfired, the more LA sagged in and dared them to shoot.
But the signs were there earlier, even though Boston had posted the league’s best record again for the fourth time in Bird’s five seasons. The 63-win Celtics struggled in Round 1 to beat a sub-.500 Cleveland team, then were tied 2-2 with Detroit before putting them away.
Boston began to hit its stride against the rival 76ers, winning the first three games before finally putting them away in Game 5 by two when Bird stole the ball from Toney as time expired.
Certainly the Celtics would have cruised through the Lakers road to the Finals out west. The first two Lakers opponents were a mere combined 78-76, and were easy pickings. LA was then aided by a thumb injury to Nuggets standout Alex English in the West finals, where 36-year old 6’9 center Dan Issel was slowed in his last season and no match for the 7’2 Jabbar.
The new 2-3-2 Finals format also aided the Lakers cause, as did the injury to the underrated Maxwell, who was not a factor in the series. In 1984, Max had scored 24 points in the Game 7 clincher over LA, and had provided clutch play, offensive rebounding, and tough defense throughout the series. None of that was there in 1985.
After Boston won Game 4 at the buzzer on DJ’s clutch jumper in the Forum, the series was knotted 2-2, just like the year before when Boston captured a pressure-packed, must-win fourth game on the road in OT.
In years past, Boston would have been going home to host Game 5 with a tidal wave of momentum. It certainly helped them win the always-pivotal fifth game and the title series in 1984. Instead, LA grabbed control of the series back with a home win in Game 5 over the emotionally-depleted Celtics, then closed it out to become the first and only opposing team to ever clinch a title on the parquet.
West 1st round: LA (62-20) 3, San Antonio (35-47) 0
West semis: LA 4, Dallas (44-38) 2
West finals: Houston (51-31), LA 1
East 1st round: Boston (67-15) 3, Chicago (30-52) 0
East semis: Boston 4, Atlanta (50-32) 1
East finals: Boston 4, Milwaukee (57-25) 0
NBA Finals: Boston 4, Houston 2
Boston 3, San Antonio 0
Boston 4, Dallas 1
Boston 4, Houston 2
LA 3, Chicago 1
LA 4, Atlanta 2
LA 4, Milwaukee 3
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 1
Boston’s first round sweep of a 30-52 Bulls team was deceiving in multiple ways. First, that was the season Jordan missed 64 of 82 games with a foot injury, but was fresh and hungry for the playoffs. The Bulls’ record and team were much better with him back, more like a 45-win team than the one that seemingly limped into the post-season.
Chicago was 9-9 with him, even though when he came back, the front office limited his minutes severely. They were 5-1 that year in games where he played 30+ minutes. Boston struggled to win Game 1 at home and then had to endure a double OT classic to capture the second game 135-131, in spite of Jordan’s playoff-record 63 points. One might argue that the Bulls series was actually the toughest Boston faced in that Eastern Conference post-season.
It was one of those years where Boston was clearly better than the Lakers, as well as every team in the league and perhaps any team in any season. LA had gone big to try and combat Boston and Houston, but in adding aging and immobile power forward Maurice Lucas they had gotten away from their biggest strength: their fast break offense.
The Celtics convincingly beat the Lakers in both regular season meetings, with new pickup Bill Walton helping hold Jabbar to just 13-of-37 shooting in the two wins. This despite McHale missing the rematch in LA due to injury. Johnson did not make a field goal in the game at the Forum, shooting 0-4.
Meanwhile seldom-used Rick Carlisle bounced off the Boston bench to score 10 huge points on five of seven shooting down the stretch, including a desperation corner jumper at the shot clock buzzer which broke LA’s back.
With the Lakers’ Achilles heel inside defense being badly exploited by the twin towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals, the Celtics would have simply taken apart the Lakers, too.
With Bird and McHale at their peaks, Parish, Ainge, and DJ near theirs, and a great bench led by former MVP Walton and All-Star Scott Wedman, the 1986 Celtics dominated a league not yet diluted by expansion. Put that team in 1996 with six new teams depleting the quality of the league, Boston might have approached 75 wins.
West 1st round: LA (65-17) 3, Denver (37-45) 0
West semis: LA 4, Golden State (42-40) 1
West finals: LA 4, Seattle (39-43) 0
East 1st round: Boston (59-23) 3, Chicago (40-42) 0
East semis: Boston 4, Milwaukee (50-32) 3
East finals: Boston 4, Detroit (52-30) 3
NBA Finals: LA 4, Boston 2
Boston 3, Denver 0
Boston 4, Golden State 1
Boston 4, Seattle 1
LA 3, Chicago 1
LA 4, Milwaukee 2
LA 4, Detroit 3
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 3 (with a healthy McHale, Parish, Walton, and Wedman, not to mention Len Bias)
The supposed Rockets dynasty fizzled as Ralph Sampson went down with knee problems and never truly recovered. Thus the team that had manhandled the Lakers the year before and rudely ushered them out of the playoffs suffered a malfunction shortly after takeoff.
They were upset by Seattle in the conference semis and never returned to the NBA Finals until 1994.
With a healthy Walton and Wedman, not to mention the late Len Bias, Boston would have beaten LA. If not for several bad calls in Game 4, they may have won anyway despite a depleted roster ravaged by injury.
McHale played the post-season with a broken foot that still bothers him over a quarter century later, Parish played with multiple sprains on both ankles, Ainge sprained his knee in Game 7 vs. Milwaukee and missed the first three games of the ensuing series vs. Detroit, Walton barely played due to numerous foot issues, and Wedman missed almost the entire season with a heel injury and surgery that basically ended his career.
Bird gutted through 44 minutes a game, playing 14 brutal playoff contests vs. Milwaukee and Detroit over 27 days in one of the hotter springs of that time. DJ, nearing 33, also played 964 minutes (41.9 per) and McHale averaged 39.4 minutes a game on two bad feet.
LA on the other hand had an easy road to the Finals against three teams with a combined record of 10 games under .500. Yet with no injuries and plenty of rest - Johnson played 666 minutes and Worthy played 681 (Jabbar, 559) those playoffs, at a much less intense pace and they still struggled to beat Boston.
In the second half of Game 4 at Boston, the Celtics held a 16-point lead. But fatigue, a blatantly missed goaltending call, a missed jump ball, a missed out of bounds kick by Cooper, a missed FT knocked out of bounds by Thompson instead of McHale, and two missed travel calls all combined to rob the Celtics of a 2-2 tie in a one-point loss.
Had any one of those wrong calls been corrected, Boston likely wins. Correct most or all and they win clearly and then after taking a 3-2 lead, possibly pull off the guttiest title ever. All the pressure would have been on LA to win the last two games against a crippled, tired team.
West 1st round: LA (62-20) 3, San Antonio (31-51) 0
West semis: LA 4, Utah (47-35) 3
West finals: LA 4, Dallas (53-29) 3
East 1st round: Boston (57-25) 3, New York (38-44) 1
East semis: Boston 4, Atlanta (50-32) 3
East finals: Detroit (54-28) 4, Boston 2
NBA Finals: LA 4, Detroit 3
Boston 3, San Antonio 0
Boston 4, Utah 3
Boston 4, Dallas 2
LA 3, New York 0
LA 4, Atlanta 2
Detroit 4, LA 2
Fantasy Finals: Detroit 4, Boston 2
Boston 4, LA 3
A much deeper and younger Detroit finally broke through to beat the bench-thin Celtics in a memorable six-game Eastern Conference Finals slugfest that featured two overtime classics.
The Pistons then took a 3-2 lead over LA in the Finals, and would have closed it out had Thomas not injured his ankle badly in that sixth game despite going for 43 points. A phantom foul call on Laimbeer in the final seconds with LA down one gave Jabbar two free throws, which he drained in clutch fashion to give the Lakers a come from behind win.
In Game 7, with Thomas rendered ineffective by his severely sprained ankle, LA held on for a three-point win with the aid of an inexplicable, ill-advised 20-foot pull-up jumper in transition by the horrid-shooting Dennis Rodman.
Amazingly though, if one watches the final seconds of Game 7, much of the Laker bench and many fans had started to swarm the Forum court in premature celebration as Laimbeer tried to in-bound the ball for a final, potential tying triple.
When Thomas received his long pass amid the chaos and turned to shoot, he was run into and stripped by his buddy Johnson and time expired before the Pistons could shoot. Riley and the Lakers quickly ran off the floor in jubilation, knowing they had gotten away with one in his promised repeat.
But the truth is that previously in the western semifinals after a Game 1 loss, an upstart young Utah club outplayed LA and only fell in seven because of inexperience and a lack of respect from the refs.
Utah had to play Game 1 on the road 36 hours after winning their previous series and was beaten soundly. Yet after that, with John Stockton emerging as a superstar, the Jazz outscored LA by 13 points the rest of the series, including a 108-80 blowout in Game 6. After the lightning-quick Stockton averaged 19.3 points on 51 percent shooting and 16.4 assists with four steals a game in the memorable series, Pat Riley called him “the best little man to ever play the game.”
The Lakers gutted their way to seven-game series wins over Utah, Dallas (in a series of blowouts that wasn’t as close as the Jazz series) and Detroit, but they had plenty of help from the referees, as usual.
The Pistons certainly should have won in six games if not for the Thomas injury and phantom foul call in the waning seconds, and Boston would likely have avenged their 1987 loss a year later had they played LA.
The Lakers played somewhat defensively instead of on the attack through much of the playoffs as they began to experience the challenges of age, fatigue, and improved competition that Boston had faced all decade, and it took much out of them.
The addition of former All-Star Jim Paxson helped bolster a weak Boston bench, but a back injury limited him from approaching his early career status. Bill Walton missed the entire season and never playing again. Yet, after McHale missed the first 21 games recovering from foot surgery, the Celtics played looser and Bird posted his highest-scoring season ever (29.9 ppg, the highest in team annals).
This should have been Larry Bird’s year. Certainly his epic Game 7 shootout vs. Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks was a performance for the ages, as Larry canned nine of his 10 floor attempts in the fourth period (including a trey and two left-handed shots) to lead Boston to a thrilling 118-116 win.
And somehow, I just don’t think Larry would have been denied again against LA. The troubles Detroit posed with their depth, size, and rugged defense would not have been there against the Lakers. At 41, Jabbar was in his penultimate season and no longer better than Parish. McHale and Worthy were a wash, and Bird was much better than AC Green. Mychal Thompson and Michael Cooper gave LA a more versatile bench, but DJ and Ainge were still solid with Danny coming off his best season and an All-Star berth.
In fact, had the referees not allowed Detroit to bully the older, thinner Celtics, Boston could easily have advanced to their fifth Finals in a row. All six games vs. Detroit were incredibly close, with each one going down to the final minute and three to the final shot, including two overtime battles and a Memorial Day weekend 79-78 slugfest.
Still, no one has gone to four straight championship series since the 1984-87 Celtics, illustrating that team’s incredible drive, skill, talent, and toughness. The only other team to exceed that were the Celtics of 1957-66, and they made it an incredible 10 years in a row during an era of fewer playoff series and teams to navigate through. LA (1983-85), Chicago (1991-93 and 1996-98), LA (2000-02 and 2008-10) and Miami (2011-13) all got there three times in a row, but fell short of four straight, and they never had to navigate as difficult a course as the Eastern Conference of the ‘80s. Nor, I might add, with as many injuries.
It seemed that by 1988 much of the public and the NBA officials/powers-that-be were ready for another team besides Boston to represent the East, and consciously or not, they allowed the opposition to get away with fouling in order to help make this happen.
West 1st round: LA 3 (57-25), Portland (39-43) 0
West semis: LA 4, Seattle (47-35) 0
West finals: LA 4, Phoenix (55-27) 0
East 1st round: Detroit (63-19) 3, Boston (42-40) 0
East semis: Detroit 4, New York (52-30) 2
East finals: Detroit 4, Chicago (47-35) 2
NBA Finals: Detroit 4, LA 0
Boston 3, Portland 2
Seattle 4, Boston 2
LA 3, Boston 0
LA 4, New York 2
Detroit 4, LA 1
Fantasy Finals: Detroit 4, LA or Phoenix 1
LA 4, Boston 1
With no Bird, a 35-year old Parish had a career renaissance and posted his best numbers in years (18.6 ppg, 12.5 rebounds). Rumors abounded all spring that Larry would return if the Celtics made the playoffs, but with two repaired Achilles keeping him off the floor, there was no reason to risk it.
McHale led the team in scoring (22.5 ppg) but Boston felt the need to get bigger and thus traded All-Star Danny Ainge to the Kings for Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine, further gutting the heart of the Celtics.
Without Larry Legend, Boston was nowhere near a title threat nor a match for a Lakers team that made it to the Finals for a third year in a row. Detroit was on a mission and would have won it all anyway, but hamstring injuries to Byron Scott and Earvin Johnson sealed the verdict as the Pistons sent Jabbar into retirement with a sweep.
West 1st round: LA (63-19) 3, Houston (41-41) 1
West semis: Phoenix (54-28) 4, LA 1
West finals: Portland (59-23) 4, Phoenix 2
East 1st round: New York (45-27) 3, Boston (52-30) 2
East semis: Detroit (59-23) 4, New York 2
East finals: Detroit 4, Chicago (55-27) 3
NBA Finals: Detroit 4, Portland 1
Boston 3, Houston 1
Boston 4, Phoenix 3
Portland 4, Boston 2
LA 3, New York 1
Detroit 4, LA 2
Fantasy Finals: LA 4, Boston 3
In Bird’s comeback campaign, Boston suffered through some bumps on the road. A small controversy with Paxson supposedly telling reporters that Bird was “tearing the team apart” by shooting too much under the new, less Larry-centric offensive regime of head coach Jimmy Rodgers.
Bird put together a great season and was named second team All-NBA, but Boston folded in the first round against an inferior New York team. The Celtics rolled to a 2-0 lead before the Knicks rallied and won the final three contests.
LA also appeared to be collapsing after the retirement of Jabbar and a second round loss to Phoenix, their earliest playoff exit since 1981.
Had the two aging teams met, Boston would have won because of its superior size and inside game. Cooper was in his final season and would not have been able to guard Bird nearly as well as he had before. Parish, McHale, and Bird would enjoy a serious edge over Divac, Green and Worthy, and the emergence of Reggie Lewis gave Boston a new swingman threat to go with veterans DJ and Paxson.
West 1st round: LA (58-24) 3, Houston (52-30) 0
West semis: LA 4, Golden State (44-38) 1
West finals: LA 4, Portland (63-19) 2
East 1st round: Boston (56-26) 3, Indiana (41-41) 2
East semis: Detroit (50-32) 4, Boston 2
East finals: Chicago (61-21), Detroit 0
Boston 3, Houston 2
Boston 4, Golden State 2
Portland 4, Boston 3
LA 3, Indiana 1
LA 4, Detroit 3
Chicago 4, LA 1
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 3
Boston narrowly avoided another first round fifth game elimination against a young Indiana team when Bird recovered from being knocked out and an injured cheekbone to lead the Celtics to a dramatic 124-121 win.
In round two, Detroit again stood in their way. With Boston down 3-2 in the Palace, the game was tied in the final minute. McHale made a fine tip-in that would have won the game in regulation, but the play was erroneously waved off by a bad offensive goaltend call.
In overtime, a lucky bank three-pointer at the shot clock buzzer gave Detroit the series-clinching win. Boston played without Parish, who would have been back for Game 7 in the Garden, one which the Celtics would have been favored to win with Thomas slowed by injury.
The Lakers upset a strong Portland team in the western finals before succumbing in five to the Bulls in the first title of Jordan’s career.
It turned out to be the swansong for Earvin Johnson, who retired before the 1991-92 campaign after testing HIV-positive. Boston had begun to re-shape its team under former player Chris Ford, and the continued improvement of Lewis made Boston dangerous as McHale returned to his sixth man role.
It would have been a close series, but I feel Boston would have beaten LA. Parish was still a bit better than Vlade, McHale and Pinckney a bit better than newly-acquired Sam Perkins, Bird better than Worthy, Lewis as good as or better than Scott, with the benches about even. The only edge LA had was at the Johnson spot, with DJ retired and replaced by high-flying youngster Dee Brown.
West 1st round: Portland (57-25) 3, LA (43-39) 1
West semis: Portland 4, Phoenix (53-29) 1
West finals: Portland 4, Utah (55-27) 2
East 1st round: Boston (51-31) 3, Indiana (40-42) 0
East semis: Cleveland (57-25) 4, Boston 3
East finals: Chicago (67-15) 4, Cleveland 2
NBA Finals: Chicago 4 Portland 2
Portland 3, Boston 2
LA 3, Indiana 2
Cleveland 4, LA 1
Fantasy Finals: Boston 4, LA 2
With Johnson abruptly retiring just before the 1991-92 season, the shell-shocked Lakers stumbled to a 43-39 record and only made the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in an improved west. It was their worst season since 1975-76, when they missed the playoffs in Jabbar’s first season with Los Angeles.
The Lakers were quickly eliminated by a powerhouse Portland team bent on avenging the prior spring’s elimination at the hands of LA, led by Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams. The Blazers were arguably the best team in the league, but blew a big lead late in Game 6 at Chicago to fall to the Bulls in the title round.
Perhaps the best game of the regular season was a double overtime 152-148 epic Celtics win over the Blazers late in mid-March at the Garden in a nationally-televised Sunday game.
Bird authored perhaps the last great game of his career as he posted the highest-scoring triple-double in league history with 49 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. A monster game.
In addition, his improbable running, leaning one-footed three-pointer just before the buzzer sent the game into its first OT and propelled the Celtics to the win. Sharp-shooting swingman Kevin Gamble then hit a 17-footer from the right side at the buzzer of the first OT to save Boston again.
But the win came at a price. At 35 with a creaky back, Larry battled through several hard hits by the Blazers and willed the Celtics to victory over a brutal game-high 54 minutes. In the very next game, Larry scored a season-low seven points. He averaged just over 18 ppg the final eight games he played that season, missing nine of the final 17 regular season contests.
Even though he played most of the rest of the way after the rugged win, Bird never returned to health the rest of the way. In fact, he missed the first six games of the playoffs and only played 37 total minutes in his first two games back, Games 4 and 5 of the Cavaliers series. Those were his first appearances after a 37-day absence.
Cleveland star Mark Price even put a psychological dagger into Bird and the Celtics, claiming that Boston would have won Game 4 (a 114-112 OT loss on Mother’s Day that would have given Boston a 3-1 lead) had Bird not returned to the court that day. Of course he was wrong, but...
Well before that, battle-tested Boston had emerged as a dark horse title contender in Bird’s injury-plagued final season, where he played only 45 games. The Celtics became a top rebounding and shooting outfit again as the lanky Lewis emerged as a true star at both ends of the court. He led seven players averaging double figures with 20.8 ppg, followed closely by Bird at 20.2 ppg.
With McHale thriving in his sixth man role, Boston took a young and talented Cavaliers team paced by the sweet-shooting Price and center Brad Daugherty to seven games in the conference semis, but they came up short in Cleveland in what turned out to be Bird’s last NBA game.
Still, that board-banging Boston outfit could have pummeled LA without Johnson. Jabbar and Riley were long gone, Cooper was retired, and with a struggling Worthy near retirement and missing Johnson’s fast break feeds for easy dunks, the Lakers were a shell of their Showtime years.
The LA backcourt of journeyman Sedale Threatt and aging Byron Scott did not scare anyone. Lewis, Gamble, Brown, and John Bagley gave Boston a slight backcourt edge over LA, something they never enjoyed when Johnson played for the Lakers.
Boston also had a solid bench led by McHale, rookie Rick Fox, Brown, Bagley, Pinckney, Sherman Douglas, and Joe Kleine.
So it seems fairly clear that with Earvin retiring prematurely, Larry would have gotten the last laugh over the Lakers.
After the Dream Team won gold in the Olympics, Bird announced his retirement. The Celtics tried to get him to play an abbreviated schedule as a sixth man, playing home games and close east coast contests, But Bird ultimately did not want to accept a somewhat disruptive sixth man role and get paid big money for not playing full-time. He even retired just days before a multi-million dollar bonus would have kicked in, regardless of whether he played in 1992-93 or not. How many athletes would have done that?
And had sure-fire superstar Len Bias not died, who knows how many more titles the Celtics would run off? Talk about another great “What If” question. Bias’ athleticism, youth and skill was exactly what Boston needed desperately.
A cross between James Worthy and Michael Jordan at 6’8, his presence would have lessened the load on Bird and McHale in particular. He probably would have played some big guard as well. He was a better shooter and more athletic than Worthy, and bigger than MJ, with a better jump shot at the same age and similar athleticism.
Maybe with Bias paired with Lewis, the Celtics would not have suffered so many career-shortening injuries from playing too many minutes hurt and tired. Their title run could have gone until the mid 1990’s. The Bulls and Pistons, as well as Lakers, would have won far fewer rings. And with perhaps seven to nine NBA rings, Bird would have retired as the clear GOAT.
To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com